After the lukewarm public reception to the outright propaganda of the previous three Sherlock Holmes movies, Universal decided to dial it back a bit for their fourth outing. They went for the tried and tested method of talking elements of one of the classic Conan Doyle stories, and using it as a skeleton to build a new story upon. In this case, the story they went for was The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, and the result is possibly my favourite of the Rathbone/Bruce films.
The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual is an atypical Holmes story for several reasons. The most striking of these is that the narrator is not Watson, but rather Holmes himself – not the only story where this is the case, but definitely one of a select few. The framing device is Watson asking Holmes to describe the first time he acted the detective, and Holmes telling the story of a visit from a college friend who told him of the disappearance of both his butler and his maid. Holmes investigates, and discovered that the butler had in fact been on the point of dismissal for being caught investigating the family’s private papers in order to find out the details of the ritual of the title. Holmes soon deduces that the ritual (a set of questions and responses posed to the sons of the family by their parents) is in fact a guide to a buried treasure, one that the butler had sought to steal. The story is considered one of the best of the original Holmes canon. It was a favourite of poet TS Elliot, and he adapted part of the wording of the ritual for his play Murder In The Cathedral as a tribute.
While the film may set aside the outright propaganda of the earlier films, the war is still a constant presence in the world. The film takes place at a home for convalescing military personnel suffering from mental trauma, who are portrayed very sympathetically in the film as clearly damaged men, a pretty enlightened view for the time. Watson is in fact working there as a doctor, one of the few times in the series we actually see him practise his craft, and it lends him an unusual air of competence for the film, as does his familiarity with the house. It’s not surprising, then, that Lestrade is brought back (in his second appearance) to play the role of substitute buffoon.
A stormy wind shakes the sign of the Rat and Raven pub in the Northumberland town of Hurleston as last orders is being called. One of the sailors cuts his hand on the jukebox window, provoking the attention of the pub’s mascot, a squawking raven. This prompts the landlord (for no real reason) into a diatribe against Musgrave Hall (or Manor, the names are used interchangeably), a nearby stately home and home of the local lords of the manor – home to hard men who he says should be pitied, “for the day is coming when they’ll need pity”.
In the manor, the butler Brunton is closing windows and turning out lights, as in the sitting room Sally Musgrave spars with her brother Geoffrey, the lord of the manor. Tensions are high, as Sally plans to marry Captain Vickery, one of the patients in the hall. Not all is going Captain Vickery’s way, however, as we discover that the doctor who has care of him is none other than Watson, who wastes no time in getting spooked by Brunton’s ghost stories. A handy sign on Watson’s filing drawer informs us that he is in charge of convalescing officers. Brunton warns Watson that his patients are all out wandering, but Watson has no chance to investigate as Dr Sexton comes staggering in the door. He has a wound in his neck that could easily have been fatal, but seems reluctant to name his attacker. As Watson and Geoffrey Musgrave try to persuade him, the clock strikes thirteen – just as it did the night before Geoffrey’s father was killed…
Meanwhile, in Baker Street, Holmes is shooting bullet holes in the wall while lying prone – a “purely scientific experiment”, to prove that a bound man could have killed his wife’s lover. Watson arrives, and after Holmes has deduced where he came from (via the usual methods), he tells Holmes of the attack on Dr Sexton. Holmes agrees that a private investigation is best, to preserve the privacy of the officers, and they set off for Musgrave Manor.
No sooner do they arrive than Holmes spots an incongruous pile of leaves that turns out to contain the body of Geoffrey Musgrave. It turns out that Phillip Musgrave has called in Lestrade to investigate the attack on Sexton, and he isn’t too pleased to see Holmes on the premises. Holmes informs them of Geoffrey’s murder, and Lestrade and Phillip rush off to investigate. After a brief discussion with Brunton, Holmes asks to speak to Watson’s patients.
The first, Captain MacIntosh is knitting in his sleep. A slight Scottish man, he was apparently ran over by a German tank. Holmes quietly confirms with Watson (again, Watson shows uncharacteristic competence in the field of medicine) that a knitting needle could have been used as the murder weapon. The second, Major Langford, a nervous man with a tendency to repeat his sentences is seen hiding a rope under his coat. Watson informs Holmes that he escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Singapore, and now suffers from “escape complex”. The third is Lieutenant Clavering, a member of the Royal Engineers traumatised by seeing too many of his comrades killed by Nazi boobytraps, and left with a nervous tic of a smile and a fear of finding bombs in every package. The last is Captain Vickery, the man we heard Sally and Geoffrey arguing about earlier. While his room is empty, Sally herself runs in, in tears because Captain Vickery is now a suspect in her brother’s murder. She begins to descend into hysterics but Holmes manages to reassure her.
In the hall, Lestrade is confronting Vickery with some circumstantial evidence. While Holmes tried to discourage him, Lestrade insists on arresting Vickery, while the other three patients listen through the wall. Vickery (an American, and thus clearly the romantic lead) tells Sally not to worry, and Holmes agrees that Vickery will probably be safer in police custody than in the house. Watson takes Sally off to give her a sedative, while Phillip comments that tomorrow she has an “ordeal” ahead of her.A ritual formula that she as heir now has to recite in front of the fireplace in library, a “meaningless set of words”. We transition from Phillip reminiscing over the words of the ritual to Sally reciting them as a storm rages outside. (The ritual in the film differs significantly from the original Doyle version.)
Who first shall find it were better dead,
Who next shall find it perils his head,
The last to find it defies dark powers,
And brings good fortune to Hurleston Towers.
Where was the light? One the face of the messenger.
Where did he speed? To guard the queen’s page.
What foeman advanced? The bishop’s page, rashly.
And who to repel? The king’s cautious page.
What then the disaster? Page slaughters page.
Who came then to slay him? The bloodthirsty bishop.
Where shall he go? Deep down below.
Away from the thunder, let him dig under.
As she completes the ritual, a lightning bolt bursts through the window to strike a suit of armour in a ridiculously over-the-top moment.
Later, a drunken Brunton is quizzed by Holmes over his having corrected Sally on one of the lines of the ritual. He claims to have memorized it because “it has no meaning, and I love things that have no meaning.” Holmes, clearly fighting back irritation at his drunkenness, insists that Brunton knows the secret of the ritual. Brunton replies by offering a toast to “all the Musgraves, past and present. Some of them murderers, and some of them worse! But they all knew how to keep a secret. And so do I.” At this point Phillip Musgrave walks in, having been ringing for Brunton for the last ten minutes. On seeing his drunkenness, he immediately gives him his notice, telling him to leave in the morning. As Brunton and his wife wonder what he is to do, the clock (showing a time of 10.25pm) strikes thirteen. (This would normally indicate it is time to buy a new clock.) Phillip stops on his way up the stairs to listen, as Brunton and his wife look at each other in dismay. In the raging storm outside, an ominous figure in a trenchcoat and hat is carrying a body…
The next morning, Watson and Holmes head to the Rat and Raven in search of Brunton, who has not been seen since the night before. They don’t find him, but do find the three convalescing officers, and a raven who insists “I’m a devil!” Sally arrives in her car, and tells Holmes and Watson that her brother Phillip is also missing. They leave the pub to go back to the manor, but see the raven pecking at the car boot. Holmes, knowing the bird as a carrion eater, suspects the worst and finds it – the dead body of Phillip Musgrave in the trunk of the car.
Back at the manor, the three officers are once again spying on the police and Holmes, as Holmes follows a trail of footprints through the house. Lestrade insists that they must belong to Brunton, who has killed Phillip and fled, but Holmes insists that the murder must have been the work of the same killer who killed Geoffrey, a killing Brunton had no motive for. Besides, the footprints end at a blank wall, which Holmes discovers to have a secret passage – one which holds Mrs Brunton. Despite her warning that he will get lost, Lestrade insists on searching the passages. She gives Holmes a note that Brunton left behind, which claims that the key to the mystery is in the Musgrave ritual. They enter the room of the sedated Sally, but find that she has hidden her copy of her ritual. Unable to wake her, Holmes retraces her steps and finds the ritual hidden inside a stopped clock. Holmes reads the ritual, trying to find the meaning. Watson comments on it being in the language of chess, as Homes realises that the chessboard is the checkerboard floor of the great entrance hall of the manor.
With the aid of the servants, the officers, Watson and Dr Sexton, Holmes recreates the moves from the ritual (which do not quite match what Sally read earlier, as Dr Sexton is placed on the board as “the King’s pale knight”). Watson flirts with one of the maids, and Dr Sexton’s inattention almost derails proceedings, but soon Holmes, the “bloodthirsty bishop”, menaces Captain MacIntosh, who has no choice but to go “deep down below”, which Holmes realises must mean in the cellars below the hall, which have been closed for centuries, since it was the site of a fratricidal murder between Musgraves. They are interrupted by a sudden knocking in the wall, which is assumed to be Brunton at first but turns out to be Lestrade, lost as predicted. Mrs Brunton sets off to let him out, as Holmes orders the maid to stamp on the square that MacIntosh had been in while he goes into the cellar with Watson, Sexton and the officers. There, they find a floor swept clean, clear evidence of recent visitors. Holmes uses Clavering’s listening equipment to find the spot directly under the stamping maid. At the spot is the concealed entrance to a crypt, the tomb of Sir John Musgrave from 1539. They raise the slab and go down to find a sarcophagus and a fresh corpse on the ground next to it, the unfortunate Brunton. In his hand is a box, containing an old document. Holmes seems to be slightly surprised by its contents, but he does not share them with the others, hiding it and instead focussing on some traces of writing on the ground. He tells them that Brunton scratched a name into the ground, but they are too faint to read. He thinks that it is the name of the murderer, written in blood, and covers the marks over until he can get the chemicals to reveal the traces of blood.
Holmes leaves Watson on guard at the door to the cellar, while he goes out to retrieve the chemicals he needs. The police guard the outside of the house and Sexton is to guard Sally. The officers watch nervously from the landing. While Holmes takes his leave, the clock strikes twelve again, even though dial shows ten past…
Watson decides that he’s clearly been too competent so far this film, and so falls asleep at his post. He is awakened by a rattling door and lured into the sitting room by a mysterious figure. The figure locks him in and goes down into the cellar. Lieutenant Clavering hears him trying to get out and releases him. He tells him that Langford’s fear of imprisonment has kicked in and he is trying to use his rope to escape through a window. Watson is afraid that the police will see him and think he is the murderer trying to escape, possibly shooting him. After some palaver with Clavering, he decides to go and warn Lestrade while Clavering stands guard. However as soon as he has gone, Clavering heads upstairs, while Watson has to deal with a sceptical policeman who takes him to see the Inspector.
Black-gloved hands cut wires, and a mysterious dimly lit figure enters the crypt. It reaches down to uncover the marks, but the corpse on the ground reaches out and grabs it. It is Holmes, who had laid a trap for the killer with a false tale of marks on the floor. The killer is in fact Dr Sexton, who faked the attack on himself to divert suspicion. Holmes, of course, had already suspected him as he had lied to the police about the cause of death when he examined the bodies (although we never saw him do that on-camera) – the true murder method being a surgical needle thrust into the back of the neck and up into the brain. Holmes had seen the needle in Sexton’s instruments when he arrived, after it had been used to kill Geoffrey but before a piece of it broke off in Phillip. The motive had been to leave Sally Musgrave heir to the estate and then marry her, before revealing that the document (an old land grant from the crown) made her one of the wealthiest women in England. Brunton had found him disposing of Phillip’s body and been made an accessory, before being disposed of. Holmes then tells Sexton that he has not let anyone else know of his trap, and Sexton immediately jumps him, overpowering him and taking his gun. Sexton gloats, before shooting Holmes and fleeing. The police and Watson, however, are waiting. Sexton tries to shoot his way out, but discovers that the gun is loaded with blanks – Sherlock had extended his trap to trick him into a confession, feeling that the needle was not enough proof to convict him.
Holmes, Watson, Sally and Captain Vickery discuss the land grant. Holmes reveals that it is worth millions, but claiming it will result in taking the homes away from all the people who currently live on the land. Sally decides that she could not do that to so many people, and so burns the grant. In an echo of the previous propagandist films, we close with Holmes and Watson driving and discussing the case. To uplifting music, Holmes speaks of a new spirit abroad in the land, of the end of the old days of greed and grab, and of a new feeling of fellow feeling abroad in the land.
As mentioned in the introduction, this is possibly my favourite of the Rathbone & Bruce films. The two play their parts perfectly, as does Dennis Hoey as Lestrade. The three convalescing officers are all also excellent. MacIntosh, Langford and Clavering are all extremely well acted and bring a great deal of depth to their parts as well as a degree of sensitivity to the nate of psychological injury that was rare for the time. Clavering especially is memorable with his spasmodic smile and rigid bearing. The actor, Vernon Downing, would return in a later film in the series but sadly never made it much higher in the profession, making a living as a character actor playing uncredited British soldiers. Olaf Hytten, who played MacIntosh, would also return. His most high profile role, however is probably as the (uncredited) victim of a pickpocket in Casablanca. Gerald Hamer, the third of the trio, had in fact already appeared in the series as the unfortunate British secret agent Alfred Pettibone in Sherlock Holmes In Washington. He would be back as the villain of The Scarlet Claw, another critic’s favourite from the series, as well as bit parts in several other episodes.
Of course, the film is not perfect. The “trap the murderer” cliché, while hoary, is done well. The idea of a four hundred year old land grant still holding water is somewhat less well done, as is Sexton’s apparent assumption that Sally could easily be won as a wife. The arrogance of murderers in this respect is a common cliché of murder mysteries, so perhaps the film makers felt that the audience would agree that Sexton was overconfident in his own ability to woo.
The uplifting social message at the end may seem to ring a little hollow to modern ears, but it’s important to remember that this took place shortly before social welfare programs began in Western countries. Three years later, for example, Britain would institute the National Health Service, ensuring that health care would no longer be limited to those (like officers) who could afford it. It’s easy to fall into a trap of nostalgia for earlier times, and forget what good has come about in the world since then.
This was one of the best of these films. The next one, not so much. Next time, Sherlock Holmes will face The Spider Woman.